“What do you want for your birthday?” my mother asked when I was about to turn 8. “I need something to tell your grandparents.”
“I want a Muhammad Ali doll,” I said immediately.
“You know you’re a skinny white girl, don’t you?” my older brother cut in.
“I’m the greatest,” I said, sounding more like Billy Crystal imitating Muhammad Ali. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
In March of 1976, I saw the Ali doll while my mother was shopping at Rose’s. He came with boxing trunks, a robe, boots, gloves, and sparring headgear. He could even knock out his opponents when you moved his arms with a lever on his back.
Ali was displayed beside the O.J. Simpson doll, a close second on my wish list back then. Every time Buffalo played, the Juice left a field full of defenders in his dust. But Ali was a poet, a braggart, and a boxer who KO’d his competition. He was just what this skinny white girl needed.
I wanted to make certain my grandparents found Ali in the store so I drew a diagram of the aisle and pointed to his location on the shelf. “He is the boxer,” I wrote carefully. “He is NOT the football player.”
On my birthday, my grandparents brought my present in a wrapped box. I tore off the paper and lifted the lid to reveal—a yellow T-shirt. My face fell as low as my Junior Keds.
“Keep looking, honey,” my grandmother said as she laughed. I yanked the shirt up to reveal the Muhammad Ali doll encased in plastic but all ready for action.
I wanted to put him in the ring right away, but the adults wanted photos first. I gave in because Ali always loved attention from the media. “Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” I declared, posing by the piano. My other grandmother snapped pictures of me, Ali, and the Hangman game she gave me.
My friend, Robbie, called up a little later. “You should bring Ali over here. He can fight the Lone Ranger.”
“Cool,” I told him. “What does the winner get?”
“The winner gets Tonto,” Robbie offered.
“Muhammad Ali doesn’t need a sidekick,” I said.
“Okay, the winner gets Silver,” he countered.
“Muhammad Ali doesn’t need a horse either. You’ve got to make this really good,” I insisted. “The winner has to get the black mask for keeps.”
“The Lone Ranger already has the black mask for keeps,” Robbie informed me scornfully.
“Your Ranger’s face won’t be so pretty after we get down to the nitty gritty,” I improvised.
We built the ring out of Legos and Tinker Toys. Tonto was the Ranger’s corner man. As the third round started, Ali’s powerful uppercut knocked the Ranger to the mat. The Ranger bounced up in seconds, but his black mask ripped down the middle and floated to his feet.
“You did that on purpose!” Robbie yelled.
“I did not!” I yelled back. “The Ranger’s mask wasn’t up to the task!”
Robbie’s face turned as red as the collar on Ali’s robe. “The match is over! You and Ali better get out of here!”
“Fine,” I retorted. “But it would’ve looked better on Muhammad Ali.” Then I grabbed Ali’s gear before Robbie could ruin it, and I beat a hasty retreat.
Ali and I tried hanging out with Johnny West, but Johnny kept getting knocked out and losing his gun. When my friend Randy arrived with his new G.I. Joe, I was ready for a worthy opponent. “Let’s fight the Thrilla in Manila,” I suggested, heading to the backyard sandbox.
“But this G.I. Joe has Kung Fu Grip,” Randy said, showing me how Joe’s fingers held his gun perfectly.
“That’s very cool,” I admitted. “Let’s have a fire fight.”
“Can we fight the Russians?” Randy asked.
“Okay, we’ll use my brother’s Army men,” I told him and we set them up on the other side of a dune.
“You go in first,” Randy told me. “I’ll cover you.”
“But you’re the soldier,” I objected. “You should go in first.”
“No way! I’ve got Kung Fu Grip, remember?”
“So what!” I burst out. “You’re a chicken who’s about to get a lickin!” I grabbed G.I. Joe’s curly fingers and hurled him into the Russians, kicking up a sand storm.
“What’s going on out here?” my father said, coming to the back gate.
“She broke G.I. Joe’s arm,” Randy blurted, “and she won’t even help fight the Russians.”
“You two better come inside for a history lesson,” my father told us.
We chugged Kool-Aid as Dad found a World Book Encyclopedia picture of Ali and some other men, all dressed in suits. “Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted and fight in the Vietnam War,” Dad explained. “The case went to the Supreme Court, and he finally won. But they took his title away. He had to win it all over again.”
“Muhammad Ali wouldn’t fight?” I slapped my forehead. It was hard to believe.
“That’s right,” my father said. “He fights other boxers to make his living. But he doesn’t fight people when he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.”
“See,” I told Randy. “You should’ve gone in first.”
“He doesn’t make his friends mad and tear up their stuff either,” my father added, as Randy tried to put G.I. Joe’s arm back in place.
I didn’t decide that Ali should retire. I just spent all my allowance replacing Randy’s G.I. Joe. Robbie agreed to glue the Lone Ranger’s mask to his face, but it dried a little crooked and ruined his reputation as an authority figure.
I recently found a booklet I made in second grade about how to be a good friend. At the top of my list I wrote “share my toys,” and “not hit.” I guess I took my own advice. Quit kicking ass and rely on your sass.
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